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Costa Mesa council supports $97M acquisition, preservation of Banning Ranch

The Banning Ranch oil field on the border of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, pictured in April 2016.
Banning Ranch on the border of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, in 2016. Conservationists, who’ve raised $83 million to acquire and preserve the 400-acre site, say escrow could close in June.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A decades-long effort to acquire and preserve Banning Ranch, an oil field near the Santa Ana River, was unanimously endorsed Tuesday by the Costa Mesa City Council, a move conservationists say will help seal the $97-million deal.

Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds requested the panel pass a resolution supporting the acquisition of the 384-acre site — the largest parcel of unprotected coastal open space in Southern California and home to at least six endangered and protected animal species — by the Trust for Public Land on behalf of a grassroots conservancy.

“This is a project many, many, many Costa Mesans have been working on for decades, and it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” Reynolds said Tuesday, explaining the open space would essentially connect the city to the sea.

“[I] recognize the value of us as a council supporting this resolution, in terms of closing the deal for this acquisition,” she continued. “My understanding is it’s close but certainly not guaranteed.”

Banning Ranch Conservancy President Terry Welsh displays a donation from state officials.
Banning Ranch Conservancy President Terry Welsh displays proof of an $8-million donation from state officials during a Dec. 16 ceremony.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Advocates have so far raised $83 million of the total purchase price, including a $50-million gift from Newport Beach philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall and $8 million in state budget funding recently secured by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

Terry Welsh, president of the nonprofit Banning Ranch Conservancy and a Costa Mesa resident, recalled first holding monthly meetings 23 years ago to coordinate interest in conserving the property and said only now are activists “knocking on the door of success.”

Once the property is acquired from its current owner, Newport Banning Ranch, a two- to three-year effort to clean up the effects of oil operations will begin at the seller’s expense. Activists will then work in concert with local Native American tribes to develop parklands and open space.

Support from the council, the first such action taken by any city in Orange County, will help secure two significant state grants that could help bridge the $14-million funding gap.

Newport Beach philanthropists Frank and Joann Randall have promised $50 million to the Banning Ranch Conservancy, a group of environmentalists that has long worked to protect Banning Ranch’s 401 acres from development.

“This is going to be incredible, and it’s going to be an amazing asset,” Welsh said. “To think that Costa Mesa, my town, is the first city to consider a resolution of support for this just makes my Costa Mesa heart swell with gratitude.”

Dave Sutton, a land conservationist for the Trust for Public Land, anticipated escrow on the property could close as soon as June 30, at which time Banning Ranch would initially be placed under the stewardship of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

Petrie-Norris told council members the effort will not only remediate an active oil field but revitalize local wetland space and provide unparalleled coastal access to surrounding communities.

“This really is something worth fighting for,” the assemblywoman said.

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